Expanding on email: In conversation with Forrester and Epsilon





Email marketing is a victim of its own success. Not only do overcrowded inboxes present a challenge for marketers, but email’s effectiveness at driving immediate results can also distract from its broader potential to build customer relationships through even the most complex customer journey.

We asked two email experts—Oded Benyo, president of Epsilon’s PeopleCloud Messaging solution, and Shar VanBoskirk, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester—for their take on the future of email marketing and how marketers can accordingly evolve their email marketing strategy. Read our CORE Content feature “Email’s growth potential” for the full story, and then listen to Steve Hendershot from CORE converse with Benyo and VanBoskirk in this supplemental audio recording.


Image showing front cover of CORE Content Issue 1 with a click-through link to the download page for the issue



INTRODUCTION: Welcome to this CORE Content audio accompaniment to our Issue 1 feature "Email's growth potential." In this recording, Epsilon's Oded Benyo and Forrester's Shar VanBoskirk share perspectives on email marketing's past, present and fertile future. After listening, be sure to dive into the rest of the first issue of CORE Content to continue exploring ideas poised to challenge your marketing beliefs. We hope you enjoy.

STEVE HENDERSHOT: I'd love to kick this off with each of you describing email at its best. In a perfect world, what makes email's personality unique? What is its grand potential? Basically, how is email working in an optimized, idealized fashion in 2020?

ODED BENYO: I think to me, email at its best is working in a way that it really allows a marketer to have a conversation with a consumer. It's a stream of communications that give you very relevant, specific information about things that matter to you in a format and a form and a time that you want to read it. And that the content is relevant, both from a structure as well as the specifics. I think that it is both informative, helps you make decisions, support decisions, as well as sort of make recommendations and offer things like promotions or advantages like that. But, really, marketers using email as a tool to have an active stream of communications with their consumers and using all of the touch points they have with consumers to inform that dialogue, whether it's the consumers contacting the marketers, going to their website, going to the store and buying something, doing whatever the case may be to do their part of the conversation. And the marketer is sort of using that data as quickly as they can to inform that conversation and keep evolving it.

SHAR VANBOSKIRK: So, I agree with what Oded said. I'm going to couch those comments in two higher-level thoughts, because I think your question was about what makes email good, and then, what is email like in 2020. So the first thought I'll say is that I think the best email programs are ones that balance business goals with user needs. And I think most of the time, email marketers forget about the user need part of that equation. So that's a lot of the stuff that Oded was mentioning: It was about being relevant, understanding customer data, responding in more dynamic and real-time circumstances. And I think that for a marketer who might be thinking about 2020 and a set of very unusual circumstances that we're all in, if they remember to think about, "What does my customer need? What do they need? What do they need in the way that they might be going through their life today? What do they need from my brand? What do they need overall as a human being who has some fundamental needs for community and for safety and for entertainment?" And then: "What is my brand goal, and how do I potentially balance what I need as a brand with what my customer needs?" And a good email program will fit in that balance, will provide some sort of utility or entertainment or content or community that will accomplish my brand goal--which might be drive sales, create goodwill, establish a physical footprint somewhere, create competitive advantage--with my user need, which might be focused on utility community, conversation, money savings, things like that. And I think the second thought I have, specific to the climate that we're in today and the uniqueness of the email medium, is that email is the first social medium, and email is in its nature interactive. And most of the time marketers don't leverage it that way. They don't think about email as something that can drive interactivity and connection between a brand and a human being or between human beings and other human beings. And so I think, as we look to what makes good email programs and email effective in 2020 and beyond, if a marketer can also think about harnessing the uniqueness of the medium itself. How do we create an interactive experience of our brand or of a type of content or of an experience that can be something very unique and interactive in the way that the customer values it? So, that's my take is: Balance user need with business goals. And then harness the nature of the medium itself for being interactive and social, and let the medium do what it's best for, not just be kind of a dry method for delivering a coupon.

HENDERSHOT: Shar, to the first half of your point, I suppose that customer-centric approach applies to every channel and every marketing medium. And I suppose your second answer addressed this in some ways, but what makes the personality of email unique in the way that you might message with the customer's circumstances in mind?

VANBOSKIRK: Yes, so you're absolutely right that a good marketer should be thinking about balancing user need and business goals period, that that works for any medium or should be thought about for any medium. I think what's maybe interesting or unique about email is the addressability of email. Email can be very personal. It should be something that comes to an individual, but it should also be something that you're considering coming in a fairly intimate setting. Like, I'm getting my email on my phone, and I keep my phone in my pocket or in my pocket book or under my pillow. I mean, these are communications that are coming to me in a much more personal way than something that I see when I'm driving my car down a highway and I see a billboard, or even something that I get through a television or a laptop where I'm in a more formal setting getting that engagement. So I think it's the addressability and the intimacy of the email. I also think it's the testability or the ability to adjust certain types of elements of the message per a circumstance, per an individual situation. I can send the same message to one individual, and it could be completely different to another individual because of who that person is, or maybe because of the time that I opened the communication, or maybe because of the type of format that I like, or I respond to. Email is very unique in that way. And then I think the other thing I'll say is that email is very inexpensive, and I don't want to draw on that to cheapen it; that's not my point. My point is that because it's inexpensive, it allows for some flexibility and some innovation in ways that other media can't. You can't play around with an ad spot that costs you millions of dollars. You have to have that really baked. You have to know exactly what you're trying to do and how it should be set. And it has a rigidity to it because it's so expensive. Because email is very inexpensive, a marketer can take some chances, can play around, can send something on a Monday morning and send something else on a Tuesday morning based on what they've seen work really well. And they're not breaking the bank when they do that. So there's some flexibility that's sort of built into the medium that lets us experiment, play and adjust as we see what works for different kinds of customers.

BENYO: Yeah, I agree. I think that, first of all, the intimacy factor is significant, because it allows you to calibrate the message in many sorts of ways to what you want to say, and consumers are happy to receive very personal, specific messaging and email. I think one more thing I would add is email is one of the few mediums that you can actually give a good amount of content. You can really provide a lot of detail around the message and the information you want to provide, whereas so many other form factors where we communicate with marketers may be the web, billboard or even a text message that you're limited by the number of characters. And while brevity is delightful, sometimes you need to say a little bit more. And when you want to say a little bit more, when you want to provide more feedback and more information, email is a great form factor for that. And the beautiful thing is that you can be long or you can be brief; both are acceptable and available in that medium.

HENDERSHOT: When you describe it that way, email sounds pretty awesome, yet it has this utilitarian, transactional reputation among marketers. Why is that? Where does that come from?

BENYO: Well, I think that, first of all, it's been around for a while. It's a workhorse, right? And it delivers. It is one of the most well-trusted channels that consistently delivers for marketers. I think also, as Shar aptly pointed out, it is relatively inexpensive. In the nature of today's business world, when you have a channel that's less expensive, it gets less attention from executives. So sometimes people misconstrue it or misunderstand the importance of the channel. And those are some of the challenges that you face in the channel, but at the same time, there's no doubt that marketers lean on email when they have meaningful communication to deliver and/or to provide a variety of messaging. And, like Shar said, I think for a lot of testing or trying of new ideas, it's a great channel to do so.

VANBOSKIRK: I'll chime in here with just a funny little analogy, which some folks might know, which is the theory of the commons. If you think all the way back to cities in New England that had their own city common, it was a place where families would go to enjoy their afternoons, but also where people would go to graze their livestock. And it was usually the place where the grass was the best. So, what's happened and how we apply the theory of the common to email is email works so well that everyone wants to take advantage of it. It is the sweetest grass. It's the place where everyone went to graze their livestock. Well, what happens in the theory of the common is that as soon as everyone takes their livestock, pretty soon there's no grass left for the livestock. So email is so effective that everyone wants to be there. Everyone wants to have a message. And gradually, consumers and business customers are sort of seeing so many emails in their inbox that they start feeling like, "Oof, email is just really hard. It's something I don't want to get. It's this thing that is super crowded and full of lots of messages I don't like." So it's almost like the medium is so good and so effective that it's attracted some bad actors. And that is sullying the medium for all of the good actors as well. So it doesn't mean that email doesn't work. It doesn't mean that email isn't something that we should continue to try. It means that the challenge of being a good emailer has gotten even harder. Now it's not just about "Leverage the medium well." It's actually about "Make sure that your email stands out from everyone else who might be kind of average, and certainly from everyone who's kind of ugly and clunky and crowding up, what is otherwise a really effective medium for the consumer and for the marketer." So, I tend to believe email is alive and well; it's just that there's a lot of bad email that has jumped on the good email bandwagon. And the good emailers are having to stand above the cacophony, create messages that stand out not just once you've opened them, but even when you're just looking at all the myriad messages in your inbox so that you know which ones to trust and which ones to pay extra attention to.

HENDERSHOT: If the underlying field is still home to the tallest sweetest grass, it seems like this is still worth tactical innovation, like it's an opportunity to invest, to try to get creative and innovate. Is that happening, or is that the sort of transactional attitude limiting the innovation in the sector?

VANBOSKIRK: I'm going to give you an answer, which is that I think there's a little bit of both. So, there are absolutely marketers and vendors that are creating innovative emails and that understand that email can be used for so much more than what it is being used for today. And then at the same time, there's still a lot of pretty basic emailers out there that are clunky. And as Oded mentioned, the medium is cheap enough that they're almost not penalized for doing things in a clunky way. You know, it doesn't cost them enough to send bad emails for them to stop sending bad emails. So, my answer to your question is absolutely there's innovation happening and there should be even more of it. But we should also acknowledge that we're probably never going to completely do away with some of the ugly stuff we see in our inbox, because there's no financial penalty for being a bad emailer. So the good emailers have to say, "OK, we look at the way that this medium could be more cost effective to us and the way that our relationships with our customers can be even further improved. And we are going to come up with new, innovative ways to do that, even though we could get by with doing some of the basic stuff."

BENYO: Yeah, I agree. And I think that there's certainly a lot of innovation happening in the space just because, like Shar pointed out, you need to get above the fray. I think that's very much a challenge that people face. I also think that sometimes in any industry, it requires a little bit of original thinking and somebody to sort of reshuffle how we approach an area and get some success around it for people to change their approach, their method. And, with email being around for a long time, there's a lot of accepted ways to measure it and ways to measure success. And I think actually we're at a point that we really need to start challenging that approach and really need to start thinking about how do we measure the impact of email over time. And I would argue that those bad emailers that think it doesn't cost them much, it is costing them much. It's costing them much in that clients are turning them off. Clients are stopping to pay attention, clients are disconnecting from the brand, and there's a residual impact over time. However, we as an industry have not done enough to measure, demonstrate and show how more effective email over time gets you more loyalty, gets you more of what you're looking for: a more active relationship with the consumer that leads off into more transactions, and so on and so forth. And I think one of the big areas for innovation in email is actually around measurement and measurement of email as a channel and how it interacts with other channels and what it does to consumer behavior. And I think as we continue to make progress in that area, I think we're going to see very different behaviors on marketers' part as they understand the impact of their actions.

HENDERSHOT: That's a great opportunity to talk about measurement, but I do want to stick in with one more question there, which is about industry and agency culture, and the idea being that every marketing team thinks about blocking and tackling in some cases and about hitting home runs in other cases. And Shar, you made the point in our pre-call that people don't think of their email campaigns when they're trying to punch their ticket to Canne. How does that play out functionally day to day?

VANBOSKIRK: I'm thinking about that one. Maybe ask it in a different way?

HENDERSHOT: The idea is basically, do marketers write off email when it comes to those moments when they get creative. All of us in all of our jobs think, "This is the time to just be solid and execute." And then other times is when you sort of try to muster your creative forces and do something special. And the question is, is that happening often enough in email? Or do we think of it so prosaically that maybe it doesn't get the effort that would help it to stand out?

VANBOSKIRK: Ah yeah, I see what you mean. So I would say it is certainly true that email isn't thought of as the sexiest medium in the marketer's toolkit. It doesn't have that "je ne sais quoi" that other media just is sort of born with, like TV has the "sexy" association. But I actually think that's OK. So, I have two thoughts here. First of all, I'm a practical sort, and I would almost always rather be practical and invest in things that are practical and are going to accomplish my goals than the things that have a lot of sex appeal. And so I actually think it's OK if email plays this role--Oded used the word "workhorse." And I really like that. If it plays this role of like, "Gosh, you know what? Email is just tried and true, and it just gets work done." And, and I'm going to invest in that even if it doesn't have the sort of bells and whistles that other media might have. Now, having said that, I actually think we're starting to see some really clever applications of email, where it gets to have a little bit of some of the creative stuff. We're starting to see emails that have a lot more interactivity--things that are carouseling applications or some of the sort of thing that you tend to think of with mobile apps, where you can pinch and drag and change the screen shape and interface with the content in a way that's just much more interesting and visually compelling than clicking on a blue link. So, I feel a little bit like the smart marketer is maybe doing both with email: understanding email as a utility and sort of as this "always-on" function that just practically delivers against the transaction goals that you need it to do. But also, email gives you an environment which inexpensively you can innovate. You can play around with some of its new capabilities. You can test content that maybe then gets applied in another media. It doesn't mean email can't be interesting and visually cool and creative. You might find that there's some new capabilities from agencies like Epsilon that can help you think about doing email in a different way than just the standard utility. So maybe I'm giving you a little bit of a "both and" answer. Yes, please, treat email as a practical tool that never lets you down--and also, can email be more creative, more visually compelling, an environment for innovation that historically was reserved for only the quote "sexy media"?

BENYO: To build on that, I agree, and I think that one of the interesting things that is happening: We're continuing to improve our communication and our marketing, and, you know, we often use the word "personalization." We're trying to achieve personalization in every channel, right? No matter where you connect with the consumer, we're trying to personalize that communication. Whereas email is sort of the perfect channel for personalization, and one that people expect something to be very personal, very intimate, very meaningful. And so to that end as the industry, until now, it was very hard to do that. We didn't have big data, we didn't have the processing power. We're just starting to get there now in terms of the ability to really personalize messages for every individual at every time, and email is going to stand out because of the ability to do it in a way where people are ready to receive it, whereas in other mediums, they may not be. The other thing I would say about creativity and about communication is I think that part of it is that we are still slaves to an old approach to marketing: thinking of marketing by channel, as opposed to thinking about marketing by consumer. And to that end, creative marketers think about how to talk to their consumers regardless of the channel, and then activate in the channel to the best of their ability and to the best of what the customer is willing to receive and they can execute. But, if you want to think about interactive campaigns with a consumer in which the customer touches you in multiple ways, email will be one of those ways and you can be extremely creative. And what's nice is that now we have the technology and the ability to actually take that personalization, that intimate communication, into the channel. So I think we're actually going to see more of an increase in the reliance on a medium like email, because it's going to allow marketers to actually be more relevant and more specific. And that noise factor we talked about earlier--those bad emailers that don't necessarily give you stuff that's relevant to you--is going to get reduced because, actually, to solve it for the email channel, we have to make these technologies affordable and ones that fit within the channel and allow you to be personal and be creative and be specific. So I think to that end, we may see a positive change on that front.

HENDERSHOT: All right, there's a great segue to measurement there, thank you. That means two straight answers from you gave us a possible segue to measurement; this time I'm taking it. Just because this seems like one of email's blessings and curses is its measurability, that there's a simple way to do this, where it's just all about clicks and conversions. But in this broader journey-focused way that you're talking about studying success, it gets tricky. But obviously email can still play a vital role as one of several touch points that ultimately delivers one of several important results. So, given all of that, what's the best system for measurement and accountability? How should marketers think about this themselves, and also push it up to the CMO? Basically, how should we measure email results?

VANBOSKIRK: Oded, why don't you start that one, because I know you guys have some very specific solutions for measurement, and then I'll pipe in with some thoughts.

BENYO: Yeah, certainly. I think that when you think about email measurement, the one big thing that I think everybody needs to be thinking about is increasing the aperture of time. It's starting to look at email programs over time and about interactions with your individual consumers and how they affect the behavior of the consumer over time. So many marketers continue to measure email programs in a very episodic way. They send an email and right away they go and check, "Well, how many clicks did I get? How many conversions off those clicks?" And so on and so forth. Whereas we all know that that's not how we behave. You have a portion of consumers that may respond that way, but a large portion of consumers that may just see that email in their inbox and it's going to remind them to later, "Oh yeah, I wanted to go and engage with that marketer, maybe buy something, or even just go research something." Some of them are just still gathering information and you're just providing them more information as they're making decisions, especially on a considered purchase, one that you have to think about for a while. And so, starting to look at measurement in a different way and increasing the aperture of time is critical. The second piece is really looking at the return. We talk a lot about email as being arguably the most effective marketing channel there is. The average ROI that you get on an email campaign is extremely high relative to what you invested. That is a great thing, but also sometimes the enemy, because what happens is we stop paying attention to optimizing and improving our program because we think the ROI is so good. And sometimes there's something to be said for, hey, if the objective is to actually generate incremental revenue, if the objective is to create more engagement and more revenue for the organization, you may want to think about the ROI through a different lens and say, "Hey, can I actually invest in it, maybe reduce my ROI a little bit, but get more top line, if you will, get more revenue out of the engagement?" And I think that, again, we sort of fall into the trap of trying to optimize everything to the nth degree and not necessarily thinking about what's the overall value to the business.

VANBOSKIRK: I love that. I tend to think about email metrics in two buckets, and I think this is in harmony with, Oded, what you just said. So there are effectiveness metrics, which is how effective is email at whatever my goal is. So, this could be driving the actual sales. Maybe my goal is sales, and how effective is email at driving the sale? But email might also be effective in other ways. Am I looking at how much value my email customers are bringing to me any way over time? So, is email effective at creating a longer-term relationship with me, even if it's not driving an immediate sale? So, are my email customers worth more to me than my non-email customers are? And then, is email doing things that are creating something in effectiveness in other media? Like, is email offering an assist that then makes it take less time for my sales to be closed? Is email making it less expensive for me to buy media in another bucket? And then, the other metric that I like to think about is efficiency. Is email making it more efficient for me to accomplish my goal? And so, this might be that the email programs themselves are easier for me to set up than another media is. It might be that email is less expensive to drive the same volume of sales than another medium is. But maybe this is also part of that email assist--like, is email shortening the overall cost-to-conversion or making it less expensive or take less time. So maybe I know that it takes me a typical six months to close a deal, but once I engage my customer in an email conversation, I'm shortening that to four months or to two months. So can you as a business think about, overall, what is the effectiveness of my email program, not just at driving an immediate sale, but in terms of the overall effectiveness of my marketing effort? And then, are there efficiency metrics that you could put in place as well that are looking at the time to convert or the effort to convert and how is email shortening or improving the efficiency of those conversion efforts?

HENDERSHOT: OK, that's great. Then let's move on to creative, or sort of the data-and-creative piece, partly because what we're measuring, obviously, then depends on the quality and innovation of the content. We can get into optimization in performance a little bit later. But, obviously, what is best-in-class right now is some combination of well-crafted period, and then well-crafted on a segment-by-segment basis--creative that is driven by data. And I just wonder how both of you think about how that marriage should look. What should we gather, how should that feed segmentation, and then the messages that go out accordingly?

BENYO: I think that data is the fuel for all your communication. And the more you leverage and use the data to inform the decisions and inform the content, the better off you are. And data is consumer interaction with the brand, it's how they respond to email: click or open and so on. It's their purchase behavior, it's their demographics. There's a lot of different forms of data, and leveraging all that data is critical to make your communication effective. Creative becomes the outlet, the manifestation of that data. So you have all that information, but how you express it, how you share it with the consumer, how you put it in front of them, that's basically how you're going to use creative. And I think that the marriage of the two is critical. And, essentially, to create the right outlet, you have to have a creative that allows you to be dynamic, that allows you to leverage different data points, to make the right decisions and to present to consumers something that's relevant and specific to them.

VANBOSKIRK: I will say that I think where data-driven marketing gets overwhelming is when a marketer feels like they are supposed to be collecting everything. And many marketers do; they hoard data and they become data-heavy, but not necessarily insights-rich. And so I think in this case, I tend to think about data for email purposes in three buckets. There's profile data: This might be demographic data. It's sort of who I am. What do you know about who I am? Then there's behavioral data, which is what I do. And then there's contextual data, which is about the situation that I'm in right now. And I think an email marketer might do well to collect all three of those types of data and to use them in a way that can adjust the content, the creative, the frequency, the cadence of the email according to all three. But they might find that one of those types of data is actually better or more useful for them in terms of the payout that they get from exploiting it. So it might be that what really matters to you is context. Like, it really matters that when I'm in a particular situation, I need to see different types of emails from you. Maybe you can send me more frequent mail when I am about to close on a loan. And when I am just at the beginning of the process, I don't maybe need to hear from you every day. I just need some occasional information about what do I need to understand about the home loan process and applying for a mortgage. But as context indicates that I'm about to close on a property, then maybe you need to email me more often to help me understand the things that I need to do to make sure that that closing goes smoothly. Or maybe context matters when I'm in a particular location. Or maybe things about my behavior matter more because I've just done a certain action and that behavior indicates that I'm in market and would be appreciative of a communication that would acknowledge that I've just taken that behavior. So, I want to suggest that as an emailer, you don't have to collect everything. You don't have to worry about having every single data point and being the keeper and the secure keeper of all of that information. It might be easier for you to identify the particular data that will help you offer a message that can be really in line with what your customers need. And probably those three buckets of data--who I am, what I do and the situation I'm in--can give you at least an initial framework to filter through all of the possible things that you could collect and just tune into the things that are going to be the most important for you to collect, to help you be more insights-driven and more customer-appropriate.

BENYO: I would add to that that when you think about creative, to me anyway, the most important role that creative plays is to humanize the relationship. To take the content and the message you want to provide and make it personal, meaningful, relevant, so it feels like it's more human and more about you and less mechanic. And I think that's where the art comes in. That's where leveraging all that data that we just talked about, and whether you use some of it or all of it, it's really how you take that data and how you actually use it to drive the communication, and then to use that data and the creative to make it something that connects with people on a personal level at the end of the day.

HENDERSHOT: A twin for that is farther downstream. So Shar a moment ago described several very logical hypotheses about what data sources might translate well to particular circumstances. And I guess my next question goes to optimization a little bit, but it's essentially, how do you balance that logic or what Oded referred to as the arts versus the science of A/B or A/B/C/D/E/F testing in terms of just throwing a bunch of sample messages out there and see which ones perform and let that guide your contextualization practice?

VANBOSKIRK: So, I generally tell marketers to start with common sense. And this doesn't mean "Don't use data." We'll get to that in a second. But it does mean you have to have a hypothesis about what you think people generally want to hear, and that's actually a very good place to start. And then you can test things. So we think people want this; we're going to see how they respond. And we'll make some changes as we learn if our hypothesis was correct. So, if you're a marketer and you don't have a lot of data, or the idea of trying to get super optimized with a lot of experimental design is overwhelming for you based on what you have, then I would say base it on what you know. And this might mean talk to people who are customer-focused today: your sales folks, your service folks. Ask them what kinds of content they know their customers are concerned about, are talking about, care about. And start there. Then, you can just change one thing. So change for a business traveler and a leisure traveler, or change for a business buyer and a consumer buyer, or change for a summer communication compared to a standard year-round communication. So just make one adjustment and see what changes. And you might find that that lift is so much better than what you were doing from just sending everyone the same thing that that is really worth your investment for now. And then you can layer on other dimensions as you identify that adding in additional dimensions will be worth it for the cost it takes you to apply those dimensions. The payoff may or may not be commensurate. So add in dimensions until you realize that you've reached your threshold, you've reached a point of diminishing returns. So, I don't want to say this doesn't need data because, of course the more data savvy you are, the more scientific and optimized you can become. But for many marketers, I think you'll find that just applying a single or a few different data dimensions will show such a significant payout that that can be a really good place to start.

BENYO: I agree. I think that leveraging data will make a tremendous difference. I have two things to add. One, to get optimization, I think that one of the most important elements is to spend some time thinking about the goal. What is your objective? Oftentimes, people fall into a trap: "Well, I just need more revenue." But what's the timeframe that you need that? Is it all focused on what you're going to get tomorrow versus what you're going to get over time? And be very clear about the objectives and the goals, and then develop ways to measure against those objectives to see if what you're doing is being effective or not--and not get dissuaded or distracted by short-term results, but rather make sure that you're focused on your long-term objective. The second thing, particularly as it relates to optimization, is that we have to make sure that we think about optimization in the way that the media now allows us to think. Traditional marketing was very much about optimizing A/B testing: "I'm going to break it into two groups," and so on and so forth. But in the world of personalization, optimization takes a completely different look because you're almost optimizing for every consumer individually. You want to talk to everyone. The question is how often and what you tell them. And so drawing too many conclusions on a group that's too large is essentially not leveraging the technology that we already have today allowing you to optimize at a much more granular level and trying to manage the communication ideally, at an individual level; if not at an individual level, at a very small group of individuals that have a very similar behavior. And I think that people who make that leap find that they are able to get the overall impact of the program to be a lot more effective. And, you have to rely on machines, you have to rely on technology to do that optimization, but it changes how you think about optimization, because it's no longer in big buckets, but it's rather that you're optimizing for the individual.

VANBOSKIRK: So, that actually makes me think of one other point associated with optimization. I think marketers should also remember to consider their own business data as they're making optimization and trade-off decisions. The right marketing programs balance business goal with user need. You're not just trying to send out communications that will give in to customer whims, will do everything a customer responds to. You actually need your optimization to consider things like margin or technology capacity. And so building in an understanding of your business data into your models is a wise choice as well. So you could look at what kind of communication gets the best customer response from the customers that we care the most about based on our margin and our revenue expectations. And so the balance of meeting customer needs while also accounting for your business goals is a good thing to optimize for as well.

HENDERSHOT: Let's get practical with this. What are some examples you've seen of email in the wild where brands have gotten this right in terms of right message, right person, right time... I know there's a fourth "right." I can't remember it, but, yes.

VANBOSKIRK: So I'll give an example, which is a good example, I think, of some of the dynamic content and the contextual data that we've been talking about. This is an example from HotelTonight. What HotelTonight is doing is they're using email to connect with people who are within a certain geographic proximity of hotel properties. They're identifying who might be location-specific to given properties, but then they're also serving up dynamic inventory based on rooms that are available and the price of those rooms at the moment. Imagine how dynamic that message is. It's very time and location sensitive, but then it's also populating with actual inventory images of rooms that are available and the price that those rooms are available at right now. So, very dynamic and very effective, because everything about it is very time and inventory sensitive. What you get an hour later would be a completely different email based on where you are at that moment and the inventory that's available then.

BENYO: I've been trying to scratch my brain about what are good examples that I've seen, and I think that one of the ones that I do like... You know, I'll start by saying I am yet to have felt like I've seen the perfect email marketer. You know, with almost every marketer that I interact with, you have some really good experiences and some that you're like, "I'm not sure." But, I certainly think that what Dunkin' is doing with their email, particularly recently in light of recent events, getting in front of customers and trying to get them right back into store or to do takeout--whatever the case may be right now--and entice them in a variety of ways that are not too aggressive, but just enough to sort of get you off and go, "Hey, you know, I'm going to go walk over and get my fix of coffee or donuts or whatever," whatever it is that you like to get at Dunkin'. I think they've done a really nice job of continuously communicating and letting you know, "Hey, we're open, we're here, we're available." They adjusted their app to help you understand what's available, how you can purchase in each store: if you have a curb pickup, or drive-through, or you need to walk in. And, they're adding a little bit of promotion here and there to try and get you a little bit closer. It feels very collaborative, it feels specific, it feels relevant and it's not too intrusive.

VANBOSKIRK: I thought of another example that is, I think, an Epsilon client. Sephora is your client, right?


VANBOSKIRK: OK, so the Sephora program is so good for its integration with those different data sources that we were talking about earlier. If you receive Sephora emails, they tap into your loyalty history so they know what tier of customer you are with them, and they understand the value that your tier is associated with to their business. So they can treat you differently based on how valuable you are to them. But that loyalty history also shows what you've purchased in the past. They know the kinds of products that you tend to buy, and they can pitch you replenishment, which they do through email, but they also pitch you related products. So, "We know you bought this last time; probably you'll also be interested in this through some lookalike modeling through evaluating what past purchases have indicated from people who have purchased similar to you." But then, they also tie in to that data that is very personal; it's about your profile. They tie in to your skin type and your color preferences. You complete a questionnaire about your overall cosmetics, the type of skin: Do you have dry skin? Do you have oily skin? How old are you? So they understand the health of your skin and the kinds of issues you might be facing based on your skin type and your age. You also fill out information about your hair color and your eye color and your skin tone, and they're using all of that information to send out emails that might suggest new products to you that are going to be in line with the tone of skin that you have, and the kinds of health routine that you might be going through to maintain your skin and the things that you like to buy. So, it's a really good example of what a customer might need with a balanced business goal: replenishment products, regular cadence of purchase, increase the amount of purchase that a single customer at a particular loyalty program level is able to buy. So, a good example of an email program that's hitting on all of that "balance user need/business goal," and all of the different data types that they're collecting to use to create a really relevant skincare maintenance program for their customers.

HENDERSHOT: OK, brilliant, thank you. So, five minutes to the hour. I have one more question I could ask given that we're going to have to hang around for a few minutes for the audio to upload. Do people have a hard stop at two, or can I ask one more before we do that?

VANBOSKIRK: I think you should ask one more.

HENDERSHOT: OK. It's just a quick kind of prescriptive question, basically. What one thing would each of you advise marketers to pursue? Some aspect of the industry or tool that you feel like is under-utilized or could be better exploited?

VANBOSKIRK: I would say, my one piece of advice here is that I think marketers should understand that email is an extension of their brand promise and a place where they can demonstrate their brand promise. If right now you're thinking about email as an ad hoc way to send out coupons, or even an ad hoc way to try to create a personal conversation with a customer, you are under-leveraging it, and you are potentially setting up some risk by not thinking about how can email be an effective demonstration of your brand promise. Particular to the circumstances that we're in today, we've all received emails from companies where you feel like, "Why are they emailing me? We don't have a relationship." Or maybe what they're saying in the email isn't consistent with the way that you think about them and the relationship that you have. And so, this I think is true not just in a time of health crisis like we're at today, but at any time. Think about, first of all, who are we as a brand? What do we stand for, and what do we need our customers to experience because of the values that we hold? And then, your email program should be an easy and natural extension of what that brand promise feels like, what you want it to feel like to your customers. And I think that will affect not just what you put in your email content, but it also will affect the tone, it'll affect the "from" address, it'll affect how often you're mailing, because it should be in line with the way you express your brand values.

BENYO: I think that my advice would be in the same realm, and it's twofold. One is, think about your email programs over time, as opposed to a point in time, and think about every point of communication as a step in that conversation, or a part of that conversation. I think that's something that I would recommend for marketers to do. And it's hard, particularly with the day-to-day demands of a business. And the second thing I would say is, remember that email is a very intimate, personal channel, and make sure to use the channel as such so you really connect with your consumers, you're really talking to them about something that's relevant and meaningful to them, as opposed to doing the easy thing, which is basically telling everybody the same thing and hoping something sticks.

Image showing front cover of CORE Content Issue 1 with a click-through link to the download page for the issue

Main image credit: IAndis Rea/Shutterstock

Soundcloud image credit:Illustration by Caleb Fox; Source imagery: DamienArt/Shutterstock